Heart of a Champion
TAGS: Alumni StoryHealth Sciences

When a cardiac condition put her rugby playing career—and possibly her educational future—in doubt, AIC alum Maggie O’Rourke ’17 proved that her heart was, indeed, stronger than most.

O’Rourke was in her sophomore year when she was diagnosed with inappropriate sinus tachycardia (IST), a condition in which electrical signals interfere with the heart’s natural pacemaker, the sinoatrial node. This interference causes a person’s heart rate to exceed 100 beats per minute even at rest, with only minimal activity often accelerating the rate to dangerous levels. This compromises blood flow to the entire body and can lead to extreme weakness, fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, and fainting.

While a disconcerting diagnosis for anyone to face, it was especially so for a 19-year-old rugby player in the prime of her collegiate athletic career.

“It was difficult in a lot of ways,” remembers O’Rourke. “I was on scholarship, so if I couldn’t play anymore I didn’t know if I would be able to afford school. But then there were the questions of whether I could physically do it at all and whether there would be any long-term effects if I did play.”

Yet O’Rourke explains that the real work came with the constant monitoring of her condition. “There were always questions on a daily basis: Can I continue doing this? Is my heart rate going to suddenly get too out of control? What can I do to help my body? My cardiologist and parents and coaches always left the decision up to me, at least until it got too dangerous.”

That only happened twice during O’Rourke’s time at AIC—once toward the end of the spring season in her sophomore year and again in her senior year after the team’s second spring tournament, which sidelined her for the rest of the season. The first incident happened because her body was having a difficult time recuperating, the second because she was having continued trouble controlling her heart rate while playing.

In both instances, O’Rourke says the support of her teammates and coaches helped. She also stresses that despite the symptoms and the risks, she never seriously considered quitting the game she loves.

O’Rourke’s ability to accept and manage IST may have something to do with her academic background. As a human biology major, her interest in physiology gave her a unique perspective on her condition and its management. In fact, O’Rourke based her senior seminar project on the possible causes and pathophysiology of her situation, aiming to confirm that it was genetic in nature. Her grandparents did, in fact, have similar symptoms.

A second project in her senior year—this one for a microbiology course—brought her academic career to an impressive conclusion. Working with Jessica Smith, assistant professor of biology at AIC, O’Rourke isolated and analyzed her own physical bacteria from everyday objects, a study that may lead to some exciting discoveries.

“I ended up using chocolate chips as my base object, and the bacteria we found was similar to the bacteria that causes food poisoning,” says O’Rourke. “Once we finished with the DNA extraction, everything was sent off to labs in Germany and Japan for evaluation.”

When asked about her future plans, O’Rourke says that she’s looking into pharmaceutical sales before going back to graduate school to be a physician’s assistant, and, of course, continuing to play rugby.


Featured Photo Credit: Mike Reid